Tarrant County felony court judge candidates spar over experience, background, changes

Vince Giardino, a Republican hopeful asking voters to choose him as the next judge for the 396th District Court in Tarrant County, said the court needs fewer plea deals and more trials.

Giardino, who was fired from his job as a magistrate for incumbent Judge George Gallagher, has some ideas he thinks could improve the court.

Gallagher, hoping to continue his nearly 25 years presiding over the felony criminal court, argues those ideas wouldn’t work.

Both men are running as Republicans. Because there are no Democratic challengers, the winner of the Republican primary on March 5 will be by default the judge-elect. Gallager is leveraging his experience as a judge to win over voters in the primary while Giordino hopes promises of change will secure the election.

Early voting begins Tuesday, Feb. 20.

Trial schedules

In a response for the Star-Telegram’s election guide, Giardino wrote that Gallagher allows too many plea deals in his court, gives defendants who plead guilty lower sentences than the prosecution thinks appropriate and doesn’t hold enough trials. He told the Star-Telegram in a phone interview that if elected he would have trials every week.

“The court needs to be in trial constantly and that court is not,” Giardino said.

But Gallagher told the Star-Telegram that’s not realistic. He said plea deals are a necessity in order for the court to keep up with the number of defendants facing charges there, especially with charges like small quantity drug possession or other non-violent crimes. Without plea deals for those charges, the court backlog would build up to a breaking point.

It’s also just unrealistic to hold trials every week because it would allow no time for other hearings. Trials go through a pre-trial phase, in which attorneys do things like make motions, introduce evidence and have hearings on topics like bond amounts, psychological evaluations and discovery.

“If you’re having a trial every week it’s not possible to get through pretrial motions, discovery, anything else because you’re focused on one case,” Gallagher said.

Giardino suggested that if the backlog gets too much that a new district court could be created. Gallagher said that, too, isn’t realistic.

District courts are created by the Texas Legislature.

Plea negotiations

Giardino also accused Gallagher of being too involved in plea negotiations. As a judge, he said, he would not participate in negotiations for a plea deal.

Gallagher said his job when it comes to plea bargain negotiations is to act as a mediator. For instance, he’ll step in if the prosecution is asking for five years in jail in exchange for a guilty plea and the defendant’s attorneys are asking for three years.

“I’m like, ‘OK guys, we’re two years apart here. Let’s figure something out,’ “ Gallagher said. “The judge is a referee, is what it is. You have to do it or you’ll just drown.”

Giardino said he also thinks Gallagher sets sentences too light when a defendant pleads guilty without a deal. He cited the case of a man who failed to register as a sex offender twice and, according to court records, received five years probation for the first time. The second time, prosecutors dismissed the case on prosecutorial discretion.

Another case Giardino cited involved a man who had a criminal history including theft, burglary and two counts of engaging in organized criminal activity who received probation for unlawful possession of a firearm and possession of marijuana. Prosecutors asked for 10 years in state jail, according to Giardino, and Gallagher sentenced him to four years probation. The man is now awaiting trial in a federal court for murder.

Gallagher said he looks at defendants’ background, but also takes into account the time that has passed between offenses. He tries to take into account the sentence the prosecution is requesting and ultimately has to hand down a sentence he believes if fair and just.

Personal attacks, titles and vacation

Giardino also said Gallagher uses his position as a judge to attack people. Specifically, he said, Gallager used his position as a judge to attack him.

Giardino said he was fired from his position as a magistrate in Tarrant County shortly after beginning his campaign to be judge. He believes his being fired was because he was running against Gallagher.

Magistrates handle the arraignment of people who have been arrested, including setting bond.

But Gallagher said that had nothing to do with it. Giardino called himself a judge, including on campaign mailers and used an excessive amount of vacation time, factors Gallagher said did come into play with Giardnio’s termination from his job as a magistrate.

Giardino said he did call himself a judge, but that he believes he was allowed to do so under federal law and the First Amendment. Gallagher said doing so was a violation of policies in Texas regarding the titles people use to identify themselves.

On vacation time, Gallagher said Giardino took 748 vacation hours during his time as a magistrate and cost the county around $169,000 to pay for substitute magistrates. Giardino said he’d earned the vacation time and had a right to take it.

Gallagher said the district judges in Tarrant County decided together to fire Giardino. He initially excused himself from the decision for fear of a conflict of interest but became involved again when he learned it was possible he could face consequences for not being involved in a decision that involved determining if a magistrate had violated state rules.